The Hypocrisy of Banning Photo Retouching

The Hypocrisy of Banning Photo Retouching

Bad retouching is not the subject of this article. Sometimes we read articles that talk about banning retouching or rumors that some brands or companies are going to get it banned from their advertising. If we dig deeper into the very reasons for such a decision, we should ban many other processes involved in the crafting of commercial imagery.

The last few years I've read a number of stories about fashion brands, model agencies, magazines and such, that decide to ban the digital processing of the photographs they use for their marketing. Some apply that restriction (or at least say so), others try it temporarily, while others withdraw their decision.

What is Retouching Supposed to Do?

Why is retouching banned? Because it alters the subject. I am not talking about aggressive use of the Liquify tool or making the skin look like plastic. Good retouching is meant to remove the temporary imperfections that in other cases may not be there, could not be achieved in camera, or was too expensive or time-consuming to get them right in camera.

Why Not Ban Others That Do the Same?

If we want to ban the digital process of removing imperfections, why don't we ban makeup artists? They do exactly the same, but in the physical world. They are able to change the shape of the face with a few brush strokes, to conceal blemishes or introduce such. They can change the shape of the eyes using optical illusion techniques. That sounds to me like an aggressive use of the Liquify tool in Photoshop.

What about hair stylists? They know how to make the face look thinner or wider by the way hair shapes around it. Do we want to ban them too?

What about cinematographers and photographers? They know how to light and frame a subject so that they look way better than in real life. Is that craft a subject to banning too?

What about casting directors? Don't they reject certain types of models because they aren't suitable for the project?


Bad retouching should not be the reason to ban a whole group of artists who can do a good job removing temporary imperfections such as hair misplacement, skin blemishes, wrinkles, etc. If that process is not used to fool the client, it is applied in a fair fashion. The same for hair stylists who do a great job making a subject look pretty by temporarily changing the shape of the hair. So are photographers who by introducing specific lighting conditions can make a subject look greater than we see it in our daily life.

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I have a real pet hate for over done plastic skin... often very lazy photoshoping :-)

"Why is retouching banned? Because it alters the subject."


This is what is called "setting up the strawman." You promised to "dig deeper into the very reasons for such a decision": but you didn't dig deeper at all. You set up strawman then argued against that strawman, then declared victory.

You mentioned you've read a number of stories about model agencies that have "decide(d) to ban the digital processing of the photographs they use for their marketing." Can you link to some of those stories? Because when I went searching for them I couldn't find a single model agency that have banned digital processing of photographs they use for marketing. The only relevant link that popped up was a link to this very article. Some agencies do still use polaroids. But this is for an entirely different reason than what you suggest: its what their clients demand.

Different companies have "banned retouching" for many different reasons. Perhaps you should dig a bit deeper into why different companies have made that decision. Because I can't think of a single one that "banned" retouching because of "bad retouching." They've done it because its what many of their readers consumers demanded. Because they want to promote positive body images. Because a photoshopped image might not be a realistic representation of their product.

imagecolorado's picture

In total agreement with you.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Notice that in my article I've explicitly talked against using the Liquify tool, but I've never said anything about removing blemishes in post or with make-up (which is technically the same). If these blemishes were removed with time and then the image was taken, the image would look the same as if they were removed by the make-up artist or in post. This is not altering of the subject (to which you said "Well... nope"), and at the end you said "Because a photoshopped image might not be a realistic representation of their product." when you talked about using photoshop to alter the bodies of the models (using the Liquify tool or a similar shape-altering tool). Yet, those models use make-up to conceal imperfections on their skin or fix their hair so they look better than they have it after shower or in the morning.

You last conclusion is the same that I made in the article, while at the same time you started your comment with "Well... nope."

Actually, it doesn't matter if model agencies ban retouching altogether, because their profit is not as big as those who hire those models (magazines, ad agencies, retail companies, etc.) and apply their own rules for their commercial images. This is where bad retouching gets the most publicity and harms those who do fair job in retouching.

What on earth are you talking about?

And who exactly are you talking too? And why did you post in response to me when you've completely avoided everything that I've said?

Back to what I actually posted: who are you accusing of being a hypocrite? Which stories have you read that show that modeling agencies have decided to "ban the digital processing of the photographs they use for their marketing?" Name names.

Your entire article is based on a strawman. You are arguing with yourself. Now you are gish-galloping. Using make-up is not "technically the same" as "removing blemishes in post". Its an entirely different thing all together.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Retouching bans have been around for years popping up here and there. You can search for Getty, Dove, In the sytle, SPKTRM, even France wanted an explicit notice if the models have been retouched (not nobody talks about make-up here), and others.

I intentionally didn't mention any of these cases, but wanted to keep it general for all the cases where people look at retouching as the only way to alter a subject. It is just easier to do it digitally. I am raising the fact that retouching is the only thing that gets backlashed as a tool to manipulate the viewers while nothing else is mentioned that also does it.

When I photograph people I pose them in such a way so that it hides their imperfections and they are amazed how they can look in non-edited photographs, but they still know that if they don't face the camera or the light in a certain way, they won't like themselves. Do we ban posing then just because it alters the way a person looks? (I'm talking about just headshots here) I intentionally photograph a non-posed image of them and then I pose them and show them a comparison. They are always astonished. So am I. It's fascinating how a person can look so differently when they are placed in a specific way towards the lens and the light.

This is why I find banning retouching as a hypocrisy. It is because it's not the only means to alter the subject.

You made a claim that you've read about read a number of stories about model agencies that decide to ban the digital processing of the photographs they use for their marketing. I've asked you twice to back up that claim. Do those stories actually exist or not?

The original Dove campaign wasn't just about "photoshop." The evolution campaign focused on more than just photoshop, it included hair and make-up and everything involved in turning their subject into a "supermodel." There is no hypocrisy in that case at all. The Getty "ban" (a change in their "creative stills submission requirements is a more accurate way of describing it IMHO) was in line with the French law change: and it was specific to work that makes the subject "look thinner or larger". SPKTRM's ethos is to be "inclusive, eco-friendly, and retouch-free". Thats a branding position and there is nothing wrong with that.

You intentionally didn't mention these cases because if you did then you wouldn't be able to write the article you did. Which of these companies "look at retouching as the only way to alter a subject?" Dove in particular doesn't look at just retouching. Your argument is nonsense.

Do you understand the underlying reason why companies like Dove have taken the stance that they have? Its about the perception of beauty. Again you look at what Dove has consistently said on this subject and it isn't all about photoshop at all. In one article they even say "People often compare themselves to images of models, actors and singers in the media, but are these images even real? With clever lighting, make-up and Photoshop, it's possible to transform an image so it no longer reflects the shape, size or features of the original model." So how deeply did you actually dive into this subject before you wrote the article?

Because one of the companies you cited doesn't do what you claim they did at all. And I still can't find a single model agency that has "banned the digital processing of the photographs they use for their marketing" as you have claimed.

You are arguing against yourself. And somehow you are managing to lose the argument.

Matt Williams's picture

This is just silly. For one, it's pretty borderline to even call this an article. It's a few paragraphs complaining about something that - as Mark mentions - is not even a problem. Like he points out, this is textbook "setting up a straw man." You're arguing against something you don't like based on a misrepresentation of that actual subject. You also managed to fit some false dilemma fallacy in here too - representing this issue as all or nothing, as well as an appeal to hypocrisy when you equate digital manipulation to make-up or hair-styling.

Look in to why aggressive digital manipulation is not being done by certain companies any more. It has nothing to do with anything you said in this "article." It isn't about simply "altering the subject" or about "bad retouching" (whatever that means) - it's about utterly unrealistic and unhealthy body standards. There is also, of course, the business side of it too: products and companies that have shifted focus to more realistic portrayals of body standards have been met with overwhelmingly positive support.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

As I stated in the article, I'm not talking about the aggressive retouching which is obviously wrong whether it's banned or not. I'm talking about the overall perception that if a portrait is not digitally retouched, but casting, lighting, hair, and make-up is done, this means it is "natural." It's not natural either.

Paul Gosselin's picture

The thing is, if you decide to right about the bans of retouching without addressing the liquefying part, you kind of make it impossible to properly address the issue, because you cannot consider the historicity of the debate, what led to such decisions, etc.
I think you can definitely argue that what is allowed in post most be on par with what is allowed with make up: if you can contour and cover blemishes with make-up, you can dodge and burn et retouch blemishes with Photoshop. (Although the technical aspect make it questionable: you can hardly keep the skin texture with a spot-covering make-up.)
The problem is that your article did not just argued so while typically acknowledging the historicity of the supposed ban (that cannot be understood without considering the issue of liquefying and how people put every retouching practice in a same bag). As underlined by Mark Fa'amaoni, you wrote: “Why is retouching banned? Because it alters the subject,” and this is utterly false. This is an argument existing almost only in the photography community. But the bans you are talking about are motivated most often by stopping to set up unrealistic expectations about people's (especially women's) body.
While your argument (make-up vs PS) would hold in a proper debate, the framing and contextualization in your article are off and make the whole article kind of missing the point.

David Senoff's picture

Totally agree. I shoot only film. When I began , there was no such thing as "post." There was only hit or miss darkroom work and "airbrushing.". Back then, the airbrushing controversy took on very unfortunate racial overtones with claims that agencies would ask for akin tones to be "lightened" or "darkened" depending on the publication. The idea that hair and make up is anywhere close to Photoshop, Lightroom or even Snapseed or Polarr is ludicrous.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Look up videos how Japanese girls make their eyes appear larger using make-up. Or find other make-up artists that show how the face shape can be changed by darkening and lightening the skin. If that's read by make-up artists, they will very well understand what I mean by that. Make-up artistry is more than just foundation, powder, mascara, and lipstick.

William Howell's picture

Come on, a portrait must be “post processed.” In a static image you can see every flaw and blemish that you can’t see in real life.
Say like you’ve got a bit of a double chin. You really don’t notice it in real life, but in a photograph it shows up like a big fat double chin. Well just use push left in liquify and shrink that puppy until it looks like real life. That’s my view, try to make like real life and that means using the liquify tool on occasion.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Double chin doesn't look that obvious when the subject is front-lit or back lit or the key light is very high. The double chin doesn't look obvious when the subject is shorter and you are taller. There are many other cases when it can be concealed even in a still photograph without changing it post.

What I don't like is someone coming in front of the camera and asking to change them into something they don't want to change into in their real life.

In my career I have used the Liquify tool probably only 4-5 times only because the model asked me. All the other cases I try to conceal things with posing and lighting or I just don't conceal them. But this all depends on the types of clients you have and the purpose of the images. If these are images of people who promote themselves, you have to have them as real and unaltered as possible. If they are unknown actors for a product, you've got the freedom to do whatever you want (as long as the changes look realistic). For example you want your "unknown actor" to have a longer hair on that product image. You can elongate it.

William Howell's picture

I agree with you, absolutely, but I take one issue. I had a lawyer, who was stout and portly, what he wanted was “Image” of himself. And that’s what I did, but I could tell from his reaction I didn’t take enough off, but he was happy overall, as I had photographed his associates also. So if I get another situation like that, I’m going to liquify to the extreme.

How do you think on my reasoning?

Edit, I wanted to say that I photographed at his office and I had six hours, just me alone. So I did not have the time to tailor the light for each individual. But like you said,if one has the time you can do a lot of sliminaztion with control of the light.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

That's sounds like one of the few cases where I had to use Liquify, because the client requested body shape changes.

imagecolorado's picture

When I grow up, I want to be a photographic police officer.

This is all a tempest in a teapot.

The rules are what you agree to do or not do. Nothing else.

Kirk Darling's picture

While at the same time declaring there are no rules.

What's worse? A composition rule or an ideological rule?

michaeljin's picture


Jorge Cevallos's picture

This is a good topic. The article should have been longer, and include more arguments.

William Howell's picture

Yes, an excellent and interesting subject. I think whatever the customer wants is the right choice. Now, like Tihomir said, you can light a person that mitigates chubbines.

Matthias Dengler's picture

Lol, what's wrong about liqufiy?
I use it to reduce distortion when shooting with wide-angle lenses.
Please get your thoughts right. Not the tools themselves are the problem. The way people use them is.
And most people have even no idea what retouching is and say they are retouchers, when they alter colours.

Retouching is the craft to improve a picture SEAMLESSLY. So that people can't even tell something has been done to it. Furthermore, retouching is a necessity in the very nature of a picture. A picture is a two-dimensional product, depicting something that is originally 3D. When you stand in front of a person in real life, you do not look only on her imperfections in her face, as your eye naturally "walks around" more, so it is naturally too distracted to grasp imperfections that much. Whereas in a picture, a two-dimensional space, your eye is naturally less distracted. Hence, retouching helps you to create a picture of a person as you have seen it in real life.

Of course, cheap "retouching" and blurry frequency separation puppet face skin as taught by all those youtube punks is wrong, as it takes away all the humanity of a person. When done seamlessly, retouching itself is perfectly fine.

Paul Gosselin's picture

The context is advertizing and fashion photography, where liquefy is often used to create impossible bodies that are seen everywhere and create unattainable expectations.

Matthias Dengler's picture

It's not the tool itself. I can do the same things with a clone brush, without using liquify.
That's what I'm saying, it's not the tool, it's the user.

Tim Gallo's picture

I dont understand the point of this article. what are you talking about?

what collective "we" are you talking about? who is banning retouching?

"bad retouching should not be the reason to ban a whole group of artists"
who banned the whole group of artist? what are you talking about?

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Look up articles online. Every year you will see publications that talk about that whether or not applying it for real and the reasons are always real vs. not real. However, nobody talks about make-up and other crafts that also change subject's appearance. It doesn't matter if big brands or a community of photographers talk or introduce such a ban whether it's on a large or a small scale. Such decisions are narrow sighted.

Lina Forrestal's picture

I was really excited to read this article because I have just learned how to professionally do skin retouching. I wish this article had a bit more depth to it: maybe discuss a few different retouching styles, maybe cite some brands and give examples to what say for example: Aerie does and what Victoria's Secret does. I love fstoppers, but I feel like sometimes content is pumped out for content's sake. I'd rather have less content with greater quality and depth. Just some feedback!

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Thanks for the feedback, Lina. I wrote this article from a philosophical standpoint addressing the issue of "real" vs. "non-real" that doesn't depend just on the presence or absence of retouching (whether the Liquify tool is present or not). It's not just brands, but also photographers communities have debates on pros and cons of retouching, but I haven't heard any of these talk about hair, make-up, lighting, casting and how they change the subject or the advertised product dramatically.

I 100% agree with the intent of this article. The points made about makeup, hair and lighting all are spot on. I think the issue seems to be with the wording around “banning” retouching. It’s pretty clear there is a general feel to “oh is that photoshopped” simply by the existence of the made up word “photoshopped”. So while it might not be banned. You never hear someone say “oh that photo looks like it was makeupped, or hairedup, or lightingup”. this is the hypocrisy this article is trying to highlight. I think.

Further the idea that photographers take all the bad press for something that is as natural as makeup or hairstyle and no one is talking about is the more subtle message in the article. At least that’s how I read it. Your mileage may vary.

-edited for grammar and typos

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Your understanding is exactly what I wrote in the article. Probably "ban" was not the word I had to use, but I am glad you got it perfectly.